It's never too soon to begin speculating about the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Today's peg: The fundraising figures released over the weekend by the likely candidates' political action committees. The big winners were Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Romney's PAC raised $2.9 million in 2009 and has $1.1 million on hand. While she got off to a relatively late start, Palin raised $2.1 million and has slightly less than a million on hand. Coming in third was Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who raised $1.3 million and has slightly more than $800,000 on hand.
Mike Huckabee lags behind in the money race--while he raised the same amount as Pawlenty in 2009, he has less than $200,000 on hand. Even so, Huckabee leads the early polls: according to this Public Policy Polling survey, he even leads President Obama by one point. Obligatory disclaimer: Polls mean absolutely nothing at this point in the game. Remember: Rudy Giuliani led the national polls throughout 2007.
In political terms, the presidential campaign is eons away--this does not stop likely candidates from political maneuvering, however. Romney has a forthcoming book and was a major behind-the-scenes figure in Scott Brown's Senate campaign. Pawlenty quickly attacked Obama's FY 2011 budget. Huckabee has his Fox program and continues to exert a strong connection with the Republican grassroots. Palin has a book, a Fox contract, and has made a couple of high-profile endorsements. For instance, today she announced her support for Rand Paul, the son of the Republican gadfly congressman and the insurgent candidate in Kentucky's Senate Republican primary. The Paul endorsement is sure to be controversial, but then Palin rarely does the "safe" political thing.
At the moment, the field is divided between insiders and outsiders. The Republican party is a hierarchical organization that favors candidates who wait their turn; hence Romney has got to be considered the frontrunner for the nomination. The question is whether the things that may have hurt him in 2008--his flip on abortion, his health care plan, fear and suspicion of his faith--will continue to do so in 2012. Pawlenty, another insider, must reckon they will.
Palin and Huckabee are the outsiders. Palin's endorsement of Rand Paul aligns her squarely with the Tea Party activists infusing the GOP with energy; she may cement the connection in her upcoming speech to the Nashville Tea Party meeting. Huckabee loves his outsider image: if he decides to run, he will continue to campaign as a social conservative populist who loves the Fair Tax.
Plenty of other people are going to run, of course. The names you hear include everyone from Mike Pence to John Thune to Bobby Jindal to Jim DeMint to Haley Barbour to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. And there will be plenty of candidates whom the Beltway has never heard of. Another consideration: If the Obama administration is reeling by the end of 2011, Michael Bloomberg and Lou Dobbs may mount independent candidacies, as well.
If history is any guide, however, the GOP race will boil down to an establishment-backed insider and a populist-insurgent challenger. The insider usually wins--but not always! Which of the names I've mentioned do you think will make it to the final bout? And what happens if a young insider with policy heft who shares the outsiders' concerns enters the race?